Monthly Archives: May 2019

All thanks to Gavin?

This week I didn’t teach meditation because I had an appointment to renew my driver’s license. This is a necessary life event that’s hard not to dread — all that dreary standing in line and then sItting around in the crowded DMV office waiting for your number to be called, having your papers shuffled through by bored bureaucrats who’d rather be anywhere but behind that counter; then taking a test, waiting some more, then a vision test, photo, etc. etc. So many lines, so much waiting! You know the drill.

There was a line outside the building when I arrived — uh, oh, here we go — but it turned out it was just for those with no appointment. The appointment line was empty! In fact I was a little early and the young woman who came in behind me had an earlier appointment time, so I encouraged her to go ahead of me. After receiving a number, I sat down and settled in, expecting a long wait, but before I could pull out my reading material my number was called.

At my assigned window I was greeted by a friendly clerk. Because I had filled in the renewal forms online, I just gave my thumbprint, took my vision test and paid my fee. Then she sent me off to “the red carpet where they are waiting to take your picture.” I told her that sounded like a lot more fun than it probably is. We laughed, she called me sweetie, and we wished each other a good rest of our days.

On the red carpet, while waiting for those in front of me to have their pictures taken, I couldn’t help noticing a woman who had been at the window next to me who was also getting her licence renewed. She had received the same instructions I had, about the photo and then the driving test in the room beyond, but after her photo was taken she didn’t seem to think there was anything else she needed to do. The photographer told her the next step and she wandered off dazedly in the general direction and eventually ended up at a touch screen test station, as did I.

After my test, I was behind her in line again. The computer had told me I’d passed, so I was just waiting for the clerk to issue my temporary license, which he soon gave with a cheery congratulations and, I later noted on my receipt, a smiley face and star! (see it with logo above) Aw! This is indeed the new DMV! I felt not just the usual relief of getting a chore over with, but as if I’d been to a well-choreographed party with thumbprint invitations all along the way so everybody knew my name. Well, ‘party’ may be overstating the case, but you get the idea. Compared to the mindless cattle-herding experience I had come to expect over the years, this was a relatively fun romp.

But my companion was not feeling it. She had failed the test royally. She just couldn’t understand how that was possible. The clerk gave her a printout of her test and suggested she go review it and then she could take it again. He was kind and patient with her as was everyone along the way. What a difference from the brusque impatience people who don’t follow the drill are often given in these kinds of situations!

I sent her metta (infinite lovingkindness), and metta to all who know and love her, and a hope that she is not alone because it looked as if a major life challenge is arising for her. We’re all in this life together, and wishing each other well is a powerful part of that. I felt that quality of lovingkindness from the staff of the DMV yesterday. They cared. And I bet a good part of their caring is knowing that their employers care about them and they can feel it. There was definitely a cultural shift in this place! Their kindness radiated through me as I drove home, and undoubtedly that benefited other drivers along the way. That’s how kindness works!


I arrived home earlier than my ten AM class usually begins, but there had been no way of knowing I would be out so soon. In fact, I had had such little faith in the bureaucratic nightmare of the old DMV that I had even wondered if I would be able to make my afternoon appointment!

And then the doorbell rang. Uh oh! One of my students must not have read my reminder email. But no, it was someone I’d never met at the door, a woman who had been wanting to attend and showed up, not knowing that the class had been cancelled. I invited her in, gave her the tour — here’s where we sit together with the view of the mountain, here’s the cupboard full of extra pillows, blankets, socks, etc., here’s where you get a glass of water, and here’s the garden with the waterfall, the oak trees, the blooming rhododendrons and the decks and paths to roam, quietly engaging with nature. She felt right at home. Then we sat down to get to know each other and to see what she was looking for in a class. Happily it turned out to be a good fit and we had a lovely leisurely exchange. As we were winding up, she said how fortuitous it was that she happened to come today and that I was at home.

I told her that it was all thanks to Gavin Newsom.
“Really? How so?” she asked, confounded but intrigued. (You know you think your new meditation teacher is of sound mind and you’re on the same page and then she comes up with some weird statement like that! Wha’???)
I told her where I’d been and where I’d probably still be but for our new governor keeping his pledge to make the DMV a top priority. (I have no idea if he directly impacted the changes, but excuse me if I’m feeling effusive and willing to give him credit. I just whisked in and out of the DMV in a festive mood with plenty of time to spare! It may take time to change major technology and systems, but changing a culture and inspiring workers by making sure they know how important they are doesn’t take long at all. So yes, I’m willing to credit him and his leadership team.)
So because he kept his campaign promise I arrived home in time to greet her.

Thanks, Gov!

What I’ve been reading lately

I’ve taken a couple of weeks off from teaching, so no dharma talks to post, but an opportunity to recommend a few books I’ve read lately!

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
It gives me great hope for the human race that this book remains on the top of the bestseller list! It is a story of our interconnection with nature, with a main character who raises herself in the marshland of North Carolina. It is beautifully written and stays with me still though I read it months ago. The author creates a world that lets me breathe deep and take it all in. This is not to say it is without story-line or suspense, for those who need such things!


The Mama Sutra: A Story of Love, Loss, and the Path of Motherhood by [Cushman, Anne]

The Mama Sutra,  a Story of Love, Loss and the Path of Motherhood by Anne Cushman
Anne was a yoga/dharma teacher of mine for many years and we have recently reconnected in a poetry class we both take. Back when she was my teacher and I was the class manager at
Spirit Rock Meditation Center, her now college-age son was a newborn who once came and showed us how to do the cobra and other natural positions that came so easily to him and were often so challenging to us. Before her pregnancy with her son, she had shared with us her painful experience of losing her daughter who died in utero just days before her due date. So reading the book brought back the great joy and deep sorrow she shared in such a way that we all really learned deeply about life’s impermanence and why really living in the present moment fully with gratitude matters.
Anne has always been a very deep and funny writer, willing to lay it all out there for the sake of reminding readers that it’s okay to be human. She’s fearless in both sharing her most vulnerable moments and brilliant in exploring and sharing the dharma.
So I highly recommend this book which has rave reviews from notable dharma teacher authors Tara Brach, Lama Tsultrim Allione and Natalie Goldberg, among others.

Fire and Rain: Ecopoetry of California edited by Lucille Lang Day and Ruth Nolan
This thick volume is such a celebration of the beauty and vulnerability of the most diverse state in the US. What makes it so approachable and rewarding is the way it is divided into sections by habitat, so the reader gets immersed in the coast, the hills, the lakes, the mountains, the cities or the desert, as a variety of poetic voices come together in a symphony of deeper understanding. Brilliant! With over 150 poets, including past and present poet laureates of counties and the US, sharing their deep love of nature in this special place, this book is a true celebration of California.
I am pleased to say that one of my poems is in the book, and that it was one of six poems nominated for the Pushcart Prize! 😉 But that’s not why I’m recommending the book. By the way, all profits from the sale of the book go to non-profit environmental organizations.

(Although I include links to Amazon for purpose of further information on each book, I encourage you to support your local independent bookstores if you plan to buy copies.)

So those are a few of the books I’ve been reading lately. I’d love to hear what you’ve been reading!

Cultivating my mama bear energy

Happy Mother’s Day! Thank you to all of you who are mothers — birth mothers, adoptive mothers, step-mothers, foster mothers, mothers-in-law, and to all who bring forth loving protective energy in the care of what you love.

Of course I am remembering my own mother. Lately I have been thinking most about her passion for world peace and the energy she put into working toward it, using her particular skills to create a better world.

She inspires me as I bring more sharply into focus my attention to my lifelong passion for preserving and protecting the earth and all its inhabitants from environmental destruction. I am reminded of the chant ‘The earth is our mother, we will take care of her’*. So Mother’s Day is also Earth Day. And every other day needs to be Earth Day too, if we are to develop the healthy habit of taking care of the earth instead of mindlessly and callously destroying it.

Mama bear energy is exactly what the earth needs from us now: Attention, love and protection, in order for our species and all life, to survive.

It’s pretty easy to activate the sense of protecting the earth if you have children and grandchildren who will have to cope with the exponentially increasing devastation in the wake of the many poor choices made in the distant past out of obliviousness, and then for the past many decades overtly and covertly but in any case knowingly continuing, out of greed and shortsightedness.

The idea of our offspring suffering in the future for what we fail to do now is, well, insufferable. Yet somehow there are people in power with grandchildren, perhaps even great grandchildren whom they profess to love, who lack the foresight or concern for their futures. Perhaps they believe that amassing fortunes and favor will save them. Last I looked, climatic chaos doesn’t check bank accounts before wreaking havoc. Just ask those whose palatial estates have been decimated by flames, debris flows, floods and other disasters.

Maybe in the past people could convince themselves that it made sense to believe that ‘as long as I’ve got mine and my family’s okay, why should I care about the rest of the world?’ But we are beginning to see ever more clearly the truth of our interconnection. Just the way when one thread in a sweater breaks and gets pulled, pretty soon you have a jumble of yarn and not a sweater that can keep you warm. The interwoven nature of all life is like that. It’s crucial for us to recognize that dying coral reefs or melting glaciers cause universal changes that affect us all. We are all of us, without exception, interdependent, and the most tenuous of connections can be the very broken thread that unravels it all.

Our regular practice of quieting the mind and cultivating awareness and compassion, increases our ability to sense the inter-connectivity of all life. Practicing in nature deepens our understanding of interconnection and the nature of impermanence.

It is important to learn both of these universal truths together. If we come to terms with the nature of impermanence but don’t sense the connection of all life, then we easily fall into depression, hopelessness, unrelenting grief and loneliness. We forget our vital role in the scheme of things. When we grow in our delight of life, just as it is in this moment, and feel this fleeting body-mind we call ‘I’ and ‘me’ as one expression of it, then we are able to openly embrace whatever arises with interest and compassion. Instead of fear-based cravings and aversions, making an enemy out of everything, we can recognize the ways we are impacting all life through our behavior — both beneficial and destructive. We are not insignificant. We are crucial, as all life is crucial.

This is not self-puffery. it is recognizing the importance of taking responsibility for our actions. We are earthlings and our current behavior as a species is causing massive destruction and extinctions of species important to our own survival. Because this is us. All of us. Together.

There has always been a resistance to making changes in our daily life in order to live in a way that at least minimizes harm. For some it just hasn’t felt all that important. For some it’s important but it falls to the bottom of the ever-growing to do list. For others there is a sense of guilt that is so uncomfortable, they put off thinking about it. There are those who feel such a sense of hopelessness that there seems no point in doing anything. Others feel so small and insignificant, they can’t imagine anything they would do would matter. Some think that we are fooling ourselves to think that what we do makes any difference, that what we need is to wait for some brilliant new savior technology that will take care of it all. And there are even some who look forward to the end, forgetting that before extinction comes a lot of suffering.

Pause for a moment to consider where your focus lies, and whether making a significant reduction in your carbon footprint and/or actively working on behalf of the earth and all its inhabitants, is a priority for you.

If you have done all you can do to date, and are willing to do more as part of your ongoing loving practice, I say thank you! Deep bows.

If you feel that the environment is not really your issue, I say, um, yup, it is your issue! All the other issues depend on this issue being addressed with full and unwavering attention. For example:

Are you concerned about immigration? Wait until you see what climatic chaos will cause, and is already causing, in the way of massive populations needing to migrate because their land is disappearing or depleted of the ability to produce food to sustain them.

Is your issue gun violence? Then surely you can see how much more of it there will be when people are fighting over resources.

Any issue you can name, if you really look at it, will reveal its deep connection with the earth — the air, water, soil. If your issue doesn’t rely on any of these for your ability to breathe, to have health and nourishment, then what planet are you on?

As I mentioned, my peace activist mom was an inspiration to me, but she was also at times a cautionary tale, because she would get burned out and fall into despair. The world seemed always on the verge of or actively involved in war. Her children were being told to hide under their desks in case of nuclear attack. She saw young men her children’s age drafted into a senseless war in Vietnam. Her own government was inclined to warmonger. She would be saddened to see, thirty years after her death, that the US is still actively engaged in war, and has a president who thinks saber rattling is a reasonable tactic in world affairs. Ah me. But even so, one aspect of Mom’s volunteerism helped to put someone in congress who made a major difference for many years. And who knows how things would have turned out without her effort? We never know. We can only put forth our wisest earnest effort, living our lives with loving purpose.

In that way, we rise above hopelessness. The current administration pulled us out of the Paris Accord (the agreement by the majority of world nations to reduce carbon and do whatever possible to at least slow down and avert the worst of climate change destruction), but many state and local governments have stepped up to meet and exceed the original agreement. For this and many other reasons — electric car sales have jumped 81% this year and the auto industry is manufacturing many more model. Many corporations are stepping up to the plate, even if the federal government won’t, And the nonprofit Earthjustice (because the earth needs a good lawyer) has won 90% of its cases against the president’s unwise anti-environmental decisions. The current crop of presidential candidates are making the environment an important part of their positions, when four years ago it was barely mentioned. So let’s not fall into despair. Instead, let’s stand strong and visible, like a mama bear protecting her cub. We need to show our power, individually and collectively.

At the very least, we need to be vigilant in our personal choices and work to significantly reduce our carbon footprint. As citizens we need to inform ourselves, spread the word and vote wisely, making the planet’s (and therefore our own) well-being a central issue for all potential elected officials. Then we need to follow through and hold our leaders accountable so they make wise environmental decisions. And to whatever degree we are able, we need to use our unique skills and gifts, as well as our time and energy to save the only planet we have to inhabit.

Because the earth is our mother, and she can’t take care of us if we don’t take care of her.

*Song credited to the Hupa tribe of Northern California and Southern Oregon.

The Incredible Shrinking Man

That’s what my husband called himself after his annual physical. He’d lost two inches in height. Not overnight, of course. Two inches off of what he had stated as his height all his adult life.

I remember when I started shrinking. It was a little disorienting, but also fascinating to see how attached I was to what I’d considered my natural height since I was fifteen.

Height is just one of the many ways we identify ourselves. When things change, as they inevitably do, we may have trouble adapting. We have become attached to thinking of ourselves in a certain way with particular characteristics. This is who we are. So when our body changes, mental adjustments need to be made as well. And that’s not always easy, is it?

We tend to pin our sense of self on impermanent aspects of being. And even the most permanent seeming aspects — our aliveness, our very breath, are transitory too. We may avoid thinking about such things, and we don’t need to dwell on them. but we can be aware of how life is like this. We can see change everywhere: the changing of seasons, family and friends grow up, grow old and yes, die. So why are we so surprised that time, gravity, stress and life events impact our bodies, too? Despite all evidence to the contrary, we often choose to see ourselves as the exception. We may worry that any changes in how we look will jeopardize our lives, our relationships and perhaps our livelihood. But deeper than those concerns is the discomfort of being reminded that life is fleeting, and that what happened to that autumn leaf that was once so supple, green and fresh, will also happen to us. Change will happen and life as we know it now will end. And whatever follows none of us can know for sure.

This attachment to a particular identity is a deep source of suffering. It can be challenging to see that it is the clinging — much more than the changes themselves — that causes suffering. If that sounds odd, pause to consider any pain you may feel at any physical loss either in looks or ability. Is it the loss or change itself that is causing discomfort? Or is it your thoughts and emotions around it? We create obstacles out of our attachment to identity, and it is part of our practice of being present and compassionate to see those patterns. Fortunately, like all things, those patterns are insubstantial and subject to change.

When we free ourselves from needing to ‘be’ the way we have always seen ourselves, and all the work that comes with reclaiming that vision, we come truly into the celebration of this life — a momentary gift to savor, like the first taste of a delicious dish. Switching our attention from how we look to allowing all our senses to open to this moment just as it is enables us to be fully alive, fully present, instead of lost in clinging to some sense of self that was never accurate anyway. Breathing in, breathing out, here and now, alive and ready to embrace with gratitude this fleeting gift of life with all it’s joys and sorrows.

(If you are interested in this idea of identity and would like to look more in-depth at the Buddha’s teachings about it, look at past posts about the Five Aggregates. Look over all of them and read them in what feels like a sensible order, which might not be the way they are presented in this link.)